Does the Internet Really Make Everyone Crazy?

A closer look at the data shows that media claims about the Web making us mad might be justified in newsstand sales, but not by science

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Sociologists call them moral panics — when a population pins its unanchored fear in uncertain times on a selected demon, whether or not the target is really a threat to society. Drugs are a frequent focus of these societal anxiety attacks, but this week, Newsweek tries to foment a classic panic against a more universal foe: the Internet.

Headlined online “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” the article begins with the story of Jason Russell, the filmmaker behind the “Kony2012” video about the African cult-leader and warlord Joseph Kony. After the video went viral and suddenly brought Russell international fame, he wound up naked and ranting on a San Diego street corner. To make the case that the Internet caused Russell’s psychotic break, the Newsweek article rapidly generalizes from rare, extreme experiences like Russell’s and wends through a selective reading of the research to argue, in the words of one quoted source, that the Net, “encourages — and even promotes — insanity.”

(MORE: The Internet Knows You’re Depressed, but Can It Help You?)

According to senior writer Tony Dokoupil:

The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.

The problem is, this conclusion runs counter to what the research data actually show.

Dokoupil makes much of brain scan studies suggesting that Internet use “rewires” the brain in ways that look similar to changes seen in drug addiction. The reality is that any enjoyable activity leads to changes in the brain’s pleasure regions if a person engages in it frequently enough. Indeed, any activity we perform repeatedly will lead to brain changes: that’s known as learning. Riding a bicycle and playing the violin also rewire the brain, but we don’t choose to refer to these changes as “damage.”

As yet, there is no brain scan that can clearly determine whether certain brain changes signify addiction or simple, harmless enjoyment. Nor can brain scans predict, in the case of addiction, who will be able to regain control over their behavior and who will not.

(MORE: Hooked on Addiction: From Food to Drugs to Internet Porn)

Dokoupil cites a study that scanned 24 people, some experienced Web users and some who were less proficient. He says that the regular users had “fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes,” but he fails to mention that the research only explored people’s Google use — comparing Google aficionados to newbies. He writes further that just five hours of time spent online (using Google) “rewired” the brains of the new users. This, of course, tells us nothing about addiction: we don’t know if the experienced Google searchers were even having trouble controlling their Internet use, or whether, based on one small study, a tiny bit of experience learning how to search the Web can “rewire” the brain dramatically. If so, then everyone’s addicted — or no one is, and the brain changes are meaningless.

Dokoupil acknowledges that the research linking Web and smartphone use to psychiatric problems cannot show clear cause and effect, but he brushes off this important caveat with quotes from experts who conduct this research and use it to confirm their own clinical observations — in other words, anecdotes, which are an even sketchier source of data — and make causal claims.

In truth, the research linking Internet use to addiction, depression or other behavioral and psychiatric problems simply cannot determine whether being online causes these ills or whether people who are already prone to such problems tend to go online more. In fact, there’s better evidence (not mentioned in the article) that the Internet can be used to treat anxiety and depression than there is suggesting it causes these problems. Randomized controlled trials of online therapy for depression have found it to be as effective as traditional therapy — and only randomized controlled trials, not the observational data cited by Newsweek, can scientifically demonstrate cause and effect.

(MORE: Study: Playing a Video Game Helps Teens Beat Depression)

Dokoupil also approvingly cites an expert who has become a target of widespread ridicule in the science blogosphere for her extreme claims about Internet-related brain damage. Baroness Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford, told Dokoupil in her typically understated way that the Internet problem “is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change.”

Greenfield has never published a study on Internet use. The logic behind her claims is often befuddling: for example, this is how she attempted to explain why she believes the Internet has something to do with the recent rise in autism, in a 2011 interview with the Guardian: “I point to the increase in autism and I point to Internet use. That’s all.” Obviously, that is not scientific reasoning, which is why her comments inspired an Internet meme (among other outrage and disdain) that trended on Twitter.

Dr. Ben Goldacre, a leading British science journalist and author of the “Bad Science” blog, sums up the criticisms of Greenfield this way: “[Her ideas] are never set out as a clear hypothesis, in a formal academic publication, with the accompanying evidence and a clear suggestion of what research programmes might be planned to clarify any uncertainties.”

The Newsweek feature also highlights stories from China, Taiwan and Korea, where Internet addiction has been accepted as a genuine psychiatric problem and treatment centers have been set up to deal with it. “Tens of millions of people (and as much as 30 percent of teens) are considered Internet-addicted” in these countries, Dokoupil writes.

Those facts, however, don’t necessarily mean that Internet addiction exists, let alone that it is widespread. Simply naming a disease and treating it doesn’t make it real, no more than the existence of witch hunts proves the existence of witches. Indeed, some of the treatments used for Internet addiction, such as the abusive Internet treatment boot camps in China where several teens have died, suggest how easily the cure can become worse than the disease when unproven therapies for ill-defined problems spring up. (Boot camps have never been shown to help with any form of addiction.)

(MORE: Blogging Helps Socially Awkward Teens)

In fact, while expanding the diagnoses for addiction overall, the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, which will be published next year, rejected Internet addiction as a bona fide disorder. The Newsweek article spun this fact, highlighting instead that Internet addiction “will be included for the first time, albeit in an appendix tagged for “further study.’”

The truth is, we really don’t know much about how our online lives are affecting us. It’s quite possible that Internet use has the deleterious effects critics suggest — certainly some people do have difficulty controlling the amount of time they spend online. But is it the addictive effect of the Internet that keeps us checking our work emails on vacation or during evenings and weekends — or is it the fact that we fear we may lose our jobs if we don’t?

The Internet might indeed be a cause of our societal worries, but not necessarily because we’re addicted to it. And creating a moral panic based on flimsy evidence isn’t going to help, no matter what the real cause of our problems.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.